Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Femisapien/EMA: A Great Robot Concept Still Waiting For Success

Ema robot

Every robot designer loves their own creations, at least at the
beginning, and they often find it difficult to understand why other
people aren’t as enraptured with the beauty and wonder of the robot
they gave birth to. Still, at the end of the day the bottom line is to
create products that customers relate to enough that they feel
compelled to open their wallets and give us their hard earned cash or

If we’re really lucky, and really creative, then we can repeat the
process over and over again, using the profits from this product
generation to build the next one. And, our customers will be so
delighted with our products that they will automatically come back to
buy more and more.

That being said, good robots, sometimes really excellent robots,
sometimes fail to take off and become best sellers. An example is “EMA”
(Eternal Maiden Actualization). EMA was originally developed by WowWee
as the first female addition to their extremely popular Robosapien
robot series, and sold in the US and Europe as the “Femisapien”.

Sega Toys did an OEM deal to import, repackage, and market the
Femisapien under their own label and renamed the robot “EMA”. The
world-wide press coverage at the time frequently mis-stated that EMA
was a new Japanese creation, playing off the “robot-crazy Japanese”

Femisapien/EMA incorporated a unique human/robot interface with the
user controlling the robot by physically touching (caressing?)
different parts of the robots body. Tilt EMA’s head and press down,
then EMA would break into song and perform a short demo dance routine.
Lift her arm, and move her hand somewhat like a joy stick, and EMA
would follow you around. The robot also included a number of sensors to
enhance the interaction and play value.

As innovative and advanced as EMA’s user interface was, it still wasn’t
intuitive for the usual customer. People found it difficult to wrap
their heads around the user interface, primarily we believe because it
was so innovative and non-standard. Had they been willing to invest the
time and effort to get proficient with the interface, then EMA had a
lot to offer. Unfortunately most customers aren’t willing to spend
hours or days trying to figure out a new toy, no matter how great the
technology or interface might be.

Hoping to open the world of robotics to a virtually untapped market,
WowWee’s original target audience was young girls, and hoped that the
Femisapien would instantly bond with them. Trying to avoid the
traditional RC type remote control concepts, WowWee replaced them with
the touchy/feely approach that turned out to be even harder for
customers to understand and adopt.

Bringing the robot to the Japanese market, Sega Toys appears to have
retargeted it towards young male robot ‘otaku’ who would couldn’t live
with out their own personal robot ‘maiden’. And, they priced the
product at almost double the US price, too expensive for the casual
customer just looking for a cheap robot toy, and too few features for
customers looking for fully functional humanoid robotics. Neither fish
nor fowl, and with a difficult to grok user interface, EMA is gathering
dust on store shelves here inspite of considerable price discounting by
retailers trying to clear out slow or non-moving inventory.

It’s really a shame. We like Femisapien/EMA a lot. Our Femisapien
(US version) occupies a prime spot in our living room and is frequently
the center of attraction at our parties and social gatherings. We even
slip it into our backpack to show off at meetings or training sessions.

Hopefully WowWee, Sega Toys, and other robot toy manufacturers will
learn from the Femisapien/EMA experience, and will improve on the
robot’s groundbreaking approach. Many of the robot’s concepts should be
adopted and integrated into follow-on, or next generation, products.

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